Mayday corresponds with Lá Bealtaine, which officially heralds the beginning of summer. Its derives from the Old Irish word Bel taine, meaning ‘bright fire’ which was surrounded by a large number of folk beliefs, some of which had possible pagan origins.
A particularly common tradition involved driving herds of cows between two bonfires in the belief that this would purify the herd and also bring luck. It was also deemed unlucky to give away salt, fire or water on Mayday as the luck and profits of a farm went with these gifts. Witches and the fairies were also believed to be unusually active during this period and a number of actions could be taken to protect your home and especially your livestock.
Milk could be poured across the threshold of the house or byre to prevent entry by the ‘wee folk’ or more gruesomely the cattle could be driven to the nearest ringfort or “fairyfort” and some of their blood spilt on the ground to appease the spirits. Ringforts are the classic early medieval settlement type and were long abandoned by the 19thand 20th centuries when they had become associated with the fairy folk
Féile na Bealtaine, Dingle. Ireland
Dingle may have been quiet on Friday evening but fires on the hillsides, and water, bread and flowers placed on doorsteps provided a glimpse into a mostly bygone tradition surrounding an unseen world that, according to folklore, had one of its busiest nights on Oíche Bealtaine.
In the time before televisions graced every home, Oíche Bealtaine was a night to pay heed to the fairies and to carry out rituals to protect homes and farms. Some in Dingle town still remember the old ways, including Mazz O’Flaherty who left bread, water and a candle outside her door for the fairies in recognition of the traditions of old. As a child Mazz’ mother warned her against going out after dark on Oíche Bealtaine because it was a time when the fairies were at the height of their powers and they were fond of carrying off children.
Similar traditions local traditions surrounding Oíche Bealtaine were recorded by children from their grandparents in the 1930s, now stored in the ‘Schools Collection’.
According to entries from the Blasket Islands, no one lit a fire until midday and the ashes from the fire were also left in the grate. Animals were driven in the western door and out the ‘dorus amuigh’ to protect them from misfortune during the year.
Across the Sound in Clogher, the stories Séamus Ó Catháín collected from Eibhlín Ní Chathaín included one relating how “no one was allowed out late on Oíche Bhealtaine for fear of being snatched , such was the strength of belief in the fairies”.
The same account tells how holy water was sprinkled around the house and on the animals and ‘fíor uisce’ was placed in ‘tig an bainne’ to guard against the milk and butter being stolen by the ‘púcaí’ . He also noted a tradition of boiling the plant ‘rosarí’ or ‘luibh an ime’ and storing it in a bottle, a small amount of which was added to the churn when butter was made. Any butter that was made on Lá Bealtaine was protected from the fairies by a fire that was lit for the duration of the churning.
Seán Ó Mainnín’s contribution to the Schools Collection relates how the only outing after dark in Baile ‘n Eannaigh on Oíche Bealtaine was made to sprinkle holy water on the crops and on the fields in order to ensure good growth and to ward off the fairies. He also told a cautionary tale of a man who went out after dark and heard a crowd travelling on the old road on the hill to the west playing fine music. He took the tune from them and was able to play it as well as they, but “it wasn’t long before they took him from this life and it was said that they probably did not want anyone in this world to have the tune”. This event copper-fastened people’s adherence to the traditions around Oíche Bealtaine, according to the Schools Collection.
Meanwhile, Eibhlín Bn Uí Shuilleabháin of Minard West spoke of the hawthorn tree or “Sceach gheal” which fetaured strongly in the folklore. The flowers were never to be taken into the house during the month of May and neither was an animal to be hit with a hawthorn stick. In Ventry on Lá Bealtaine they boiled the ‘sceach gheal’ and gave the liquid to any sick cow or animal.
The tradition of lighting fires was also noted in the Schools Collection, where stories relatate how farmers lit fires on the boundaries of their land on Bealtaine morning so that God would protect their animals for the year.